Saturday, May 03, 2003


Halvard Johnson no longer lives & teaches in Baltimore, but continues “serving the tri-state area” as the tag line on his email used to proclaim. Johnson is, as you may know, one of the most active poets on a couple of the listservs devoted to contemporary verse, often posting poems that, for one reason or another, he thinks we should be reading. As a rolling anthology, they’re intriguing, almost always worth the effort, but also not from any single aesthetic position or point of view. If Johnson has ulterior motives behind these posts, he does a great job of keeping the secret to himself.


I’ve known Johnson primarily as the author of four books that came out over a decade – more or less the 1970s – from New Rivers Press. That was a decade of high militancy amid poetry tendencies – the period when the Poetry Project Newsletter routinely removed certain language poets from the lists of contributors to little magazines – and Johnson’s poetry, which I would have characterized then as a softer version of the New American poetics of the two previous decades, was part of the landscape, but never aligned with any particular visible formation. That was, I now suspect, a reasonably accurate assessment. He was – still is – a complete independent as a poet.


Independence for a poet, as well as for a scholar, is not necessarily the easiest stance to take. Literary communities & networks form more or less naturally before anyone even plans them & create possible, sometimes probable, audiences for whatever. Just look at how rapidly the 50 or so active poetry bloggers have fallen into the process of referring obsessively back & forth to each other’s daily posts.* The impulse behind Johnson’s status as a loner may in fact have been a desire to travel – he’s logged in time everywhere from Turkey to Korea, Puerto Rico to Germany. But the consequence was that his work was produced in relative isolation from the vibrant scenes that were contesting public space. Having been in print, his books then went out of print & stayed that way until the Contemporary American Poetry Archive, a site set up to preserve “lost works,” made them all newly available over the web.


But as anyone who reads small presses knows, Johnson has continued to write & publish in journals since the 1970s. Books, however, appear to have been harder to come by. Which is why the inclusion of his Rapsodie espagnole on Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed) website from Espoo, Finland, is such very good news indeed. Talk about long overdue!


xPress(ed) is a site that publishes booklength works of “experimental” – its term – poetry in PDF files. It published 13 books last fall, and another ten this spring. Authors include Catherine Daly, Jesse Glass, Peter Ganick, Lewis Lacook, mIEKAL aND, Kari Edwards, Eileen “Peeps” Tabios, Sheila E. (for Everywhere) Murphy, Michael Basinski, Nico Vassilakis, Dan Raphael, Joel Chace & more.


Rapsodie espagnole is, by Johnson’s own description, “a found poem,” a work in 34 sections whose sentences are taken entirely from the English examples in an advanced Spanish language primer. If there are any rules beyond the constraints around Johnson’s source language, I can’t discern them. Here is section 7:


If I were you, I should decline the offer. She wanted to go shopping,

but he preferred to read the paper. Where do you spend the summer?

Who is it? It is they. The fact is that there is not enough for the two of you.

Before sitting down, I wiped the chair. On thinking it over, we have decided

he is not suitable. Put them there, don’t give them to me. How brown

you are getting! I am going to tell you the truth. It was as if the monkey

were human. Whenever I see him I give him a small coin. Where

is the chocolate? We have eaten it. There are Peter and Philip,

let’s go and invite them. We offered it to her. He entertains his friends

a great deal. He handed the list to the inspector. They took out

the necklaces and beads and showed them to the natives.

They showed them to them. She was so scared that her hair

stood on end. The nurse put a thermometer in his mouth and took

his temperature. He promised his wife he would buy her a new washing

machine. He promised it to her. In order to pay for it he borrowed

the money from his bank manager. It is impossible for us to accept

this ultimatum. They were shot at dawn. Why go on talking about it?

He thinks he’s handsome, but he isn’t. He is so kind-hearted! I told you so.

You cannot rely on him, believe me! We think it opportune to sell

all our shares in that company. I am surprised there are foreign tourists here.

They are everywhere. He thought he was so clever!


New Sentence Я Us! Johnson plays the pronouns into a comic series of exchanges, some light-hearted, others threatening. Individual sentences tend to be direct, but at times are just far enough “off” from idiomatic norms to give the reader that “dictated from Mars” feeling: How brown you are getting!


I have to admit I have always had an ambivalent relationship toward constructed texts of this sort, a feeling heightened now that the Ubu website seems to have decided that my own 2197 “anticipates, with its stock of phrases morphing and reappearing in different acrobatic poses throughout its pages, the preoccupation with dataflows, rhizomes and digital recurrence that has characterized much literature in the age of the internet.”** But 2197 was very much written the old-fashioned way, by looking at the materials at hand & figuring out in my head what should go next – its only quirk being that “the materials at hand” were restricted to one source sentence for syntax, one for vocabulary, determined mathematically from a core set of 169 sentences. My guess is that Johnson has proceeded through K.L.J. Mason’s Advanced Spanish Course in very much the same fashion, utilizing the “Practice Sentences for Translation into Spanish” as source material, but then just writing. I don’t think it’s possible – in the above section or elsewhere throughout these 34 single-stanza pieces of variable length – to have produced what we find here through a system. Johnson’s wit is too sharp, his timing too exact. It passes a variant of the Turing test for poetry that I call the Ginger Rogers test – Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in high heels – if it’s this smooth, it wasn’t done by machine.


Consider, for example, some early systematic poems by Jackson Mac Low, such as those found in Stanzas for Iris Lezak, a 396-page work written by Mac Low in 1960 & published by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press 12 years later***. Mac Low’s afterword on the method used in composing & performing Stanzas is over 20 pages long, but what is really noteworthy from the perspective of Halvard Johnson’s text some 43 years hence is how very awkward Mac Low’s pieces are – they don’t try to hide it & even revel in it to some degree. At the time it was something, however ungainly, nobody had every achieved before in writing. In contrast, Jackson’s Twenties, written in the late 1980s using “subjective” methods, are every bit as exploratory as Stanzas but infinitely smoother & sleeker. Twenties also passes the Ginger Rogers test. Rapsodie espagnole is thus a work far closer to Twenties than it is to Stanzas, even if the source language is derived from a single book.


My ambivalence, of course, is that same old one between composition as an individual process – that is, as a process channeled through (& thus controlled by) an individual – and the possibilities of, not automatic writing, but automated writing. There was a period a few years back when I wondered if Brian Kim Stefans would soon be able to generate a computerized booklength text every single afternoon, while still holding down whatever it is he does for a job. Since then I’ve gotten to know a little the large oeuvre of Alan Sondheim & the truly gigantic process that seems to surround Augie Highland. Highland appears able to generate a text as rapidly as some people breathe.


I don’t want to turn into a slightly pomo variation on Hilton Kramer’s caricature of criticism, shaking a raised finger & kvetching that young people these days need to sweat out every individual pixel. Yet I do value labor & intelligence absolutely – Johnson’s approach to his materials demonstrates plenty of both. It’s not, for example, a test case for the limits of procedure, but rather a deft & exceptionally clever application of the possibilities raised by this language. In this sense, Rapsodie is a reasonably close kin to Kit Robinson’s The Dolch Stanzas, another work written “the old-fashioned way” using a fixed vocabulary.


One significant difference between Rapsodie & Dolch or Twenties is that its fundamental kernel is the sentence, whereas the other two works come into focus at the word. Writing with the sentence as your unit is an extremely tricky & difficult process – not at all like putting word after word. Length, structure, sound, potential for referentiality all come into play in ways that are sometimes surprising. Given my own writing process – composing individual sentences & deploying them in works often months or even years later – this for me is the most fascinating part of Johnson’s process. I can speak from experience when I say that he really gets it & hits the right spots the way, say, a great jazz musician would all the way throughout this work.







* Trying to yoke an aesthetic tendency around Jim Behrle, K. Silem Mohammad, Sandra Simonds, Gabe Gudding, Laura Willey,  Heriberto Yepez, Nick Piombino, Nada Gordon & Jim Duemer may seem like an improbable undertaking, but each can now count at least 50 other bloggers who are probably intrigued at whatever else they might be writing.


** I will admit that I never thought of 2197 in such terms before reading this blurb.


*** Really useful project for Duration or Ubu or even xPress(ed): get the rights to digitize the entire Something Else catalog.

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